"EIGHT HOURS FOR WORK, EIGHT HOURS FOR REST, EIGHT HOURS FOR RECREATION!" Thus shouted the banners on September 5, 1882 the first Labor Day parade, held in New York City. Thanks to the efforts of Peter McGuire, son of an Irish immigrant who spent much of his childhood working while his father fought in the Civil War. He went on to organize the first labor union in Chicago: the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America a year earlier.
Congress was reluctant to acknowledge a "Workingmen's holiday," but a wave of support from municipalities crested until it was finally voted a federal holiday in 1894. This, in spite of recognition of the importance of the working class by none other than Adam Smith.
"Labor was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labor, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased."
Since then, the US Department of Labor, established in 1913, took this stance:
The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership - the American worker.
A cynic would wonder if the original reluctance of government was subsequently reversed for political gains. The whole labor movement is designed to promote the welfare of the average worker, improve working conditions and increase opportunities for gainful employment, yet our "for the people" institutions were slow in the uptake. The same cynic might note that such ideals are rooted in a Christian tradition fundamental to the genesis of our democracy.
Jesus said, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" ~Matthew 11:28~
"Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth." ~Ephesians 4:28~
Nonetheless, the Industrial Revolution grew quickly through exploitation of the workers. Entities in public and private sectors, motivated by profit, forgot their moral lessons, to be reminded through the self-organization of the unwashed masses. Only through local governmental structures, closer to the people, was our national political caste forced to pay attention to workers woes.
Since then, unions have had their heyday. Perhaps they've overstepped their humble beginnings and, through hubris over time, strained our economy. Would health care now be so expensive if for generations aspiring doctors hadn't been expected to reap great monetary rewards? How about the automotive industry: would the products of their labors be competitive in a global market if the industry wasn't hobbled by generations of accumulated unionized demands? As robotics take over the assembly line, should auto workers accept a new outlook towards what is fair compensation? Not doing so is perhaps causing them their jobs.
But that was then. Now, the situation is much the same. A few years ago, Norman Solomon dared to ask: What if We Didn't Need Labor Day? He proposed reversing the American media's focus away from the very rich and toward the people who make riches reality.
Labor Day may be a fitting tribute to America's workers. But what about the other 364 days of the year? Despite all the talk about the importance and dignity of working people, they get little power or glory in the everyday world of news media.
What if the situation were reversed?
Once a year, big investors and corporate owners could be honored on Business Day. To celebrate the holiday, politicians might march arm in arm through downtown Manhattan with the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Donald Trump. Executives could have the day off while media outlets said some nice things about them.
During the rest of the year, in this inverted scenario, journalists would focus on the real lives of the nation's workforce. Instead of making heroes out of billionaire investors — and instead of reporting on Wall Street as the ultimate center of people's economic lives — the news media would provide extensive coverage of the workplace.
Indeed. Because this perspective exists, the semi-deification of the wealthy, labor issues from the 18th century still plague workers. Conditions have improved - to a point. Most of us enjoy an air conditioned workplace, a workload that can be accomplished with less than 10 hours overtime weekly, modest health and retirement benefits. Lately, though the bias toward tax breaks for the rich, years of incremental decreases in education funding, increases in the cost of health care, and alarming deductions in retirement benefits and employer contributions to health care, herald a shift in thinking favoring the industrial elite. The balance tilts anew.
Ponder, if you will, how current labor policy has helped you raise your family in the last decade. Has it made things easier? Is your economic situation better that that of your father's or grandfather's? If so, you are in the minority.
The underlying reality of all businesses is people. Without the human factor, business is meaningless. People build the goods, people buy the goods. People benefit from the improved lifestyle. People profit through their ideas, their labor, to the extent that is serves other people. To continue the false assumption of our corporate and political elite - that the driving force of business (and our economy) is money - is to continue to dehumanize an institution that is only possible through continued collaboration between humans. Without people, what's the point? Without a healthy, happy labor force, is any commodity possible?